In the world of nature, the eagle evokes powerful images of freedom, dignity, and courage along with a Native American connection to the divine. Eagles nest in mountain cliffs or large, tall trees, sometimes as high as 150 feet. Conservationists indicate that eagles build their nests with sticks and line them with pine branches, grass, moss, and feathers to make it soft. The nest provides the place for the eagle to lay and incubate her eggs. When her eaglets hatch and are strong enough to begin to fly, the eagle starts to take the nest apart with her fledglings in it. One branch goes, then some grass, then the pine needles while the chicks begin to scurry around the large nest wondering, “What is happening here?” Their security being whittled away, the eaglets’ mother takes each one up on her back to the sky and allows them to feel the wind. As the eaglet finds its balance in the wind, she drops down to allow the bird to find its way. When the bird drops she flies beneath him to hold him secure once again. This goes on until the bird flies on its own. It will never again return to its nest!
The entire image becomes for me a model of transition, moving from one state of life, one season of life, to another. For most of us, when change rings our doorbells we are not eager to answer. Change requires we move from our comfort zone. It means letting go!
For the followers of Christ, the Ascension of the Lord marks the beginning of the deconstruction of their world as they have known it. The historical Jesus is leaving. No longer will they be able to consult with him, learn from him, watch him heal, or listen to him proclaim the kingdom of God. Now, those tasks would become theirs. The nest was coming apart so that the winds of the Holy Spirit might come upon them to swoop them up into their own missions. With specific instructions, the disciples of the Lord were to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the promise of the Father: the Holy Spirit.
The unknown is hardly consoling, which is why the disciples keep looking up into the sky after Jesus leaves. They are literally stunned! The psychological task they must employ is the death of their own precepts of who the Christ would become. For unless they can let go and allow their experience with the Lord to bless them, they will always stare into the sky unable to embrace a new future.
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, has a wonderful chapter called “A Spirituality of the Paschal Mystery.” He outlines it thus:
Good Friday: the loss of life—real death.
Easter Sunday: the reception of new life.
The Forty Days: a time of readjustment to the new and for grieving the old.
Ascension: letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling.
Pentecost: the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living.
To remain stuck in the Ascension cycle of the Paschal Mystery is to be unable to let go and let the past bless us so that we can move ahead. Rolheiser tells the story of a middle-aged father of four daughters who is slightly overweight and the manager of a grocery store in Canada. He should be happy he admits, but he is not. He has a good marriage, lovely kids, house is paid for, but he cannot get past the fact that all his life he wanted to be a professional hockey player. The man has epiphany one day on the Ascension of the Lord as he listens to the homily:
“I had a realization in church last year. Just after my daughter finished [reading], the priest started reading how Jesus’ body went up into heaven. A thought struck me then: That’s what has to happen to my daydream—I have to let it go up to heaven, like Jesus’ old body. It was a good dream, but it’s over! I have to stop living that dream so that I am not so damn restless and can get inside my own skin. I have every reason to be happy, but I’m not.”
He continues to muse that there must be other people like himself, age forty-five and overweight who are happy in life and he wants to be one of them. “I got to be who I am and get inside of my own life instead of trying to live somebody else’s life or trying to live a dream that was over a long time ago.” This man is ready for his ascension, Rolheiser admits, for happiness and restlessness are not determined by who makes it big time and who ends up in the small towns. They depend upon the Ascension and Pentecost and whether these have happened or not.
Ascensions in our lives are primarily about letting go. My lovely dentist admitted recently after the death of her mom, and now her dad, that she is facing her own mortality, which might just mean that the narrative of her life will change. Dreams, unmet goals, premature endings, insufficient funds, certain ideas about how life should work, for the maturing adult must ascend to the heavens so that a new vision might emerge.
Clinging holds the human spirit back. Jesus knew this and he had to leave the earth. Though he was young, vital, dynamic, and full of the Father’s energy and life, imbued with great love and compassion, Jesus had to ascend and let go of the mission. Why? So that he could pass it on to his followers and indeed by extension to all of us. So too his followers needed to let go, embracing a new transformative grace urging to bring the good news to the whole world.
Like the eaglets in the nest, we are sometimes more comfortable in our safe spaces, but if we stay there, clinging, we will never fly.
Mary K. Matestic, MTS
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
—Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.